Antarctic Ice Melt, Climate Change, Collapse of Industrial Civilization, Doubling Time, Environmental Collapse, Exponential Growth, Freshwater Pulses, Greenland Ice Sheet Melt, IPCC, James Hansen, Nickolay Lamm, Nuclear Meltdown, Ocean Dead Zones, Oceanic Anoxic Events, Paul Beckwith, Salt Water Intrusion, Sea Level Rise, Warm Water Upwelling
What makes exponential growth so deceptive is that, no matter the growth rate, things always starts out with a period of slow growth, but then quickly change over to a rapid buildup with a characteristic doubling time. Before you know it, you are overrun with rodents, overwhelmed by bacteria, and surrounded by urban sprawl. As Albert Bartlett exclaimed, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” And so it goes with the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Within a few generations we will find ourselves inundated by rising oceans at the same time that surging temperatures are making large swaths of the planet uninhabitable. Various positive feedbacks are amplifying the exponential rate of ice melt, rendering useless the IPCC’s linear-model forecasting of global sea level rise(SLR). Upwelling of warm ocean waters are melting both polar regions from the bottom up, and the resulting large freshwater pulses are already slowing down ocean currents. The oceans are losing oxygen. Reflective Arctic sea ice is fast disappearing and a blue ocean event is just around the corner. Melting polar and glacial ice and thermally expanding ocean water have accelerated SLR to the highest rate in at least 6000 years, and an estimated 69 feet SLR has already been set into motion.
From recent satellite data and scientific studies, SLR appears to be in the beginning phase of an exponential growth pattern that will decimate thousands of coastal cities by 2070. Last year we learned that the ice mass loss rate from both Greenland and Antarctica has more than doubled in the past 5 years. Ominously, the West Antarctic ice sheet has been found to be less stable than originally thought. Warming ocean waters are infiltrating beneath the ice shelves and irreversibly melting West Antarctica from below. And more recently we learned that the stability of East Antarctica is being undermined in the same insidious way. In fact, Antarctic ice shelves have been thinning up to 70% faster than average in some spots. These ice shelves extend out over the polar waters and are what hold back and support all the land-based glacial ice. Once the ice shelves are eroded, land ice will have an open path to slide down into the ocean and melt, greatly accelerating SLR. Congruent with these disturbing trends is the revelation that SLR has been increasing much faster than we thought in the last couple decades. The rate of change per year has been 3.2mm since 1990 versus 1 to 1.4mm for the previous nine decades. That is a 100% to 200% increase in just the last couple decades. Adding to SLR is the frenzied pumping of groundwater by drought-stricken farmers and municipalities. In a cruel twist, SLR will only worsen fresh water scarcity by causing inland salt water intrusion, raising the fresh water table, and altering freshwater streamflow. SLR will reshape geography, changing coastal estuaries, wetlands, and forests. Radically altering such natural topographical features will inevitably change rainfall patterns. Permanent and intermittent flooding will allow for the expansion of tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria, and more frequent and intense hurricanes and monsoons will increase the number of cases and duration of exposure to pathogens and diseases.
Dr. James Hansen has argued all along that 5 meters of sea level rise by the end of the century is possible, saying:
“…IPCC treats sea level change basically as a linear process. It is more realistic, I believe, that ice sheet disintegration will be non-linear, which is typical of a system that can collapse.”
Hansen had posited a doubling time of ten years for land ice melt rates, but satellite data has revealed a doubling time that is occurring twice as fast. This would put those measurements more in line with the projections of physicist/climatologist Paul Beckwith who calculates we may be on track for a 7 meter(23 feet) SLR by 2070 if the doubling period of ice cap melt from both Greenland and Antarctica hold up over this century. Paul tells me that the recent developments described above support his views. Interestingly, there was a study published in 2013 that stated an eventual 23 foot SLR would be locked-in by the end of the century under BAU emissions based on best estimates of global temperature sensitivity to pollution and the finding that every degree Fahrenheit of global warming results in a global average long-term SLR of 4.2 feet. That study, however, did not take into account the exponential rate of ice melt now occurring.
What will 23 feet SLR look like? For some fairly accurate visuals, take a look at Nickolay Lamm’s work. In the U.S. alone, 1500 communities would be underwater at high tide. With its porous limestone substrate, South Florida would be completely lost:
Most nuclear plants are located along waterways for easy access to water for coolant purposes, making them vulnerable to storm surge flooding in a world of expanding oceans. Since decommissioning a nuclear power station is a long, expensive, and dangerous process, I can’t imagine we will have the time, money, or forethought to safely get rid of all these time bombs before most of them are swallowed up by the ocean and go Fukushima on the world. In addition, melting ice sheets and SLR can set off the most destructive of earthquakes and volcanoes. The toxic wreckage left behind by capitalist industrial civilization will linger around for millennia to haunt anyone who does manage to survive in this hellish future.
The year is now 2015 and the human population is still shooting skyward as if there is some sort of bright techno-utopian future on the horizon, the high priests of capitalism are still praising endless growth, fossil fuels are still the predominant energy source on the planet, and the masses still can’t get enough of celebrity gossip. No need to worry about the future. I’m sure if there’s a buck to be made by holding back the rising tides, we can count on some capitalist lurking in the shadows to fix the problem. Sea walls will do the trick, right? Humans are looking more and more like ants on a floating turd: “When the log turns over we will all be dead…”
Update May 8, 2015:
A new study shows another ominous jump in the rate of growth in SLR. Robert Scribbler blogs about the staggering 30% increase here:
…new findings paint an even starker picture. For a recent study, headed by Shuang Yi and published on April 30 in Geophysical Research Letters provides evidence that, since 2010, annual rates of global sea level rise have shown a strong uptick. The study, entitled An Increase in the Rate of Global Mean Sea Level Rise Since 2010, notes:
The global mean sea level (GMSL) was reported to have dropped 5 mm due to the 2010/11 La Niña and have recovered in one year. With longer observations, it is shown that the GMSL went further up to a total amount of 11.6 mm by the end of 2012, excluding the 3.0 mm/yr background trend. A reconciled sea level budget, based on observations by Argo project, altimeter and gravity satellites, reveals that the true GMSL rise has been masked by ENSO-related fluctuations and its rate has increased since 2010. After extracting the influence of land water storage, it is shown that the GMSL have been rising at a rate of 4.4 ± 0.5 mm/yr for more than three years, due to an increase in the rate of both land ice loss and steric change.
In short, the study finds an average rate of sea level rise of 4.4 mm per year, or 30% faster than the annual rate from 1992 to 2009, during the period of 2010 to 2013. For these, more rapidly rising, sea levels the study identifies clear causes. The first is an increasing rate of land ice loss. The second is what is termed as ‘steric change’ — a scientific phrase that both identifies ocean thermal expansion due to warming combined with changes in ocean salinity, which also impacts sea surface height.
I emailed this recent finding to Paul Beckwith and here’s what he had to say:
Update July 10, 2015:
This post appears to becoming reality.
Update July 20,2015:
Update July 23, 2015:
Update December 31, 2015:
Update January 1, 2016:
Update January 7, 2016:
Update January 11, 2016:
SLR has risen 8cm since 1992 and jumped by 1cm just in the last year:
Looking back over the last century, we see what looks like the beginnings of an exponential rise in recent times:
We already have 20 to 75 feet of SLR locked in. It’s just a matter of how fast it will happen and you can bet that it won’t be a gradual, linear rise. If you follow the news, glaciologists always seem to be amazed that things are happening much faster than expected. Here are a couple recent headlines:
Government estimates of SLR over this century do not take into account rapid melt of polar ice sheets:
…Most of the models projecting future sea level rise assume a gradual acceleration of sea level rise through this century and beyond as ice melt gradually accelerates. Our knowledge of how sea level rose out of the past ice age paints a very different picture of sea level response to climate change. At the depth of the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago, sea level was some 420 feet below present level as ice was taken up by large continental ice sheets. Subsequent ice melt was not a gradual acceleration and then deceleration process. Rather it was a series of very rapid pulses of sea level rise followed by pauses. These rapid pulses of rise, from three to thirty feet, were fast enough to leave drowned reefs, sandy barrier islands, tidal inlet deltas, and other coastal deposits abandoned across the continental shelf. That is what happens when climate change warms enough to destabilize some ice sheet sector. It rapidly disintegrates, resulting in a rapid rise.
We have significantly warmed atmospheric climate and that is resulting in an accelerated ice melt of the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Much of the surface of the Ice Sheet is darkening as the dust and black carbon in the ice concentrates on the melting surface. This accelerates heat adsorption further accelerating surface ice melt.
More importantly, warmed ocean water is accelerating ice melt in both polar regions. The warming North Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean have been accelerating ice melt all around Greenland since about 1995 as this dense, ‘warm’ ocean water enters the deep outlet glacial fjords that penetrate far in under the Ice Sheet. ‘Warm’ water from upwelling because of increased wind shear around Antarctica is also penetrating in under outlet glaciers to the West Antarctic and East Antarctic Ice Sheets. Each of these ‘warm’ waters are only 2-4 degrees Celsius, but are doing a powerful amount of warming, and we are creating a basically unlimited supply of warmth to the oceans.
The beginnings of polar Ice Sheet melt are showing positive reinforcing feedbacks which are rapidly accelerating the rate of melt far beyond anything originally anticipated. Water on the melting ice surface adsorbs more heat accelerating surface melt; melt water percolating down through the ice lubricates the base permitting faster motion, which results in more extensive fracturing. Water percolating through the fractured ice accelerates ice melt and warms the ice resulting in softening of the ice and further acceleration. And so on. With the rapid melting of the Arctic Ocean pack ice and warming of the Arctic Ocean, release of additional carbon dioxide and methane from decaying organics in the melted permafrost and melting of methane hydrates on the Arctic continental shelf, this melt is accelerating and seems irreversible. We are most certainly witnessing the onset of a rapid pulse of sea level rise…
Storm surges will become exponentially more damaging as sea levels rise. Global warming will amplify and increase the frequency of super El Niños and anomalies like the “Blob”. This year’s record storms will be the new normal in coming years. If you live in Florida(aka the new Atlantis), sell your home while you can.
Update January 30, 2016:
Update February 6, 2016:
Nonlinear factors will likely bring unpleasant surprises.
Update February 10, 2016:
Update February 22, 2016:
Update February 24, 2016:
Update March 8, 2016:
Update March 14, 2016:
It appears that, unless societies make significant changes, we will see approximately 3 feet of sea level rise by 2100. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to cause enormous economic and societal problems. What’s great about this paper is they also include a discussion on the limitations of their work. For instance, they state that their method cannot deal with processes that are independent of the warming rate (such as a sudden collapse of an ice sheet).
Update March 26, 2016:
Update March 31, 2016: